I've never even been to Tampa Bay. I've visited Chicago once–in summer 1989, for a Cubs game–and I never turned on the radio during that visit. So it makes absolutely no sense that the work of a local talk-radio star in those two cities should come to mean so much to me, have such a profound effect on my life. But when Bob Lassiter signed off his blog for good yesterday in order to live his last days in privacy, I knew it was time to pay homage to a man I never met or heard in his prime.
Radio has an effect on its audience like no other medium — it creates the illusion of intimacy between talker and listener. You come to feel that the invisible persona in your speaker is sitting next to you, talking only to you; the announcer becomes your best friend, when in fact he or she is somewhere else entirely, has never met you, and you don't even really know them, except inasmuch as they allow you to. You know their persona. Now imagine a relationship like this one, only 900 miles apart, with the audience listening to recordings made 20 years ago of a talk-show host who went off the air in 1999. That's the kind of relationship between Bob Lassiter and me.
If you don't know Lassiter's work, he's far too complex to describe easily. I once said on the BC threads that he was "he was brilliant, honest, funny, and the meanest sonofabitch in talk-radio history." Which is all true, but it's only half the story. "Mad Dog" Lassiter prided himself on his intellectual honesty and made it a point to challenge his listeners' every belief.
Mostly he confronted Conservatives, Christians, and the elderly, but he wasn't afraid to turn on a dime and hand liberals and the young their asses (he did remain a staunch agnostic). He gauged his audience carefully, did his homework diligently, and skewered their sacred cows such that they would call him in a blind rage, when he would then rip them to shreds. But he was also capable of being extremely sensitive and revealing of his own life: "You probably know more about me than you do about your own spouse," he once said. It was no wonder that at WPLP and WFLA in Tampa Bay, he was far and away the most listened-to talk host in the market (the second most listened-to radio show, period.) Even those who despised him tuned in every day.
His legacy is still more complicated than I have described here; try his Wikipedia entry (most of which I wrote).
And how and why do I know all of this? I never heard of Lassiter until 2004, when I stumbled upon the legendary 1987 call from an outraged listener that's become known as the Mr. Airstream call. As Lassiter says during the call, it may be the best call any call-in radio program ever received.
I laughed so heard that I Googled his name, found more recordings, and wound up becoming a connoisseur of his career. Then he started his blog, which was followed by a fan site of his old airchecks – how many call-in talk show hosts have a cult built around their old recordings?–and I became a true disciple. I don't know how Lassiter would feel about my calling myself that, but there's no better way to say it — the more I heard him, the more he became a mentor, a guru, to me.
I've thought a lot about why. Why do I take such inspiration from a man ranting about the issues of the day in 1988? Or branding as "subhuman pigs" elderly retirees who, today, are long since dead? What could these ancient recordings have to say to me?
I think it started because he reminded me of a former mentor: a man from my hometown who also had been in radio, had a similarly deep voice and gruff demeanor, and had a trademark beard. (This guy looked nothing like Lassiter, but I picture him talking half the time I hear Bob.) But that connection faded quickly. My hometown the guy was an asshole, pure and simple. Lassiter often portrayed himself as an asshole, but he was also incredibly thoughtful and sensitive and hammered at people to THINK. He could even be effusive and sentimental, talking about his relationships with his wife, his mother, even his dogs.
Lassiter's thoughts and lessons were timeless. He often discussed things like religious hypocrisy and Biblical self-contradictions, racism, sexism, political lies and rhetoric, and–especially–people's tendency to blame everyone but themselves for society's ills. ("Whatever problems America has can be traced back to one specific group of people: Americans! You and me!") Even if these things are being discussed in the context of Reaganomics or Clinton policy, or Jimmy Swaggart, or the O.J. Simpson trial, Lassiter is getting at universal truths, things that have always and will always be problems, and how we might understand those things and maybe even work to get past them. Which is, of course, the definition of timelessness.
But there's more to it than that…something more personal. I see myself in Lassiter. There's the cerebral aspects–my own religious struggle, doubts, questions, my liberal politics (although he didn't like being called a liberal, either), my love of sarcasm, and unwillingness to take crap from anyone. There's also my dabbling in radio, including talk-radio in college. And somehow, there's our respective moves around this great nation. I was living and attending elementary school in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, when Lassiter was ruling the airwaves in Tampa. In 1988 I moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, which would turn to be my own private Hell on Earth. I stayed there for a mercifully short time (13 months) before moving to Charlotte and eventually back to Winston-Salem, where I had to re-learn a city that had changed in my five-year absence. That was hard for a 14-year-old kid.
Just as I was leaving Grand Rapids in September 1989, Lassiter was settling in Chicago, where he'd gotten a million-dollar contract to work at WLS. WLS would turn out to be Lassiter's own private Hell on Earth. He stayed there for a mercifully short time (two years) before moving to his wife's hometown of Davenport, Iowa, and eventually back to Tampa–first to WSUN and then back to WFLA, where he had to re-learn a radio market that had changed in his four-year absence. That was hard even for a 50-year-old man. You see the similarities?
But what started out as a connection with Lassiter turned into a hero/admirer relationship. I listen to him provoking thought, laughter, and fury, and I discover something: I want to be like this man. I want to have such an intellect, such a capacity for intellectual honesty. I want to have such an ability to demand, to force people to truly think about the things they believe and say. What do those things mean? What do they imply, what do they indicate, what are their ramifications? I want to make people laugh that way. And I want to be able to deflect people's bullshit with such virtuosity. I've even noticed that some of the comments I've made on my blog start to sound like Lassiter.
He's had the best kind of influence on me — even when I hear him say something that I agree with, I stop and think about it. Do I really agree with this? What is he saying, and what's the other side of it? This, I suspect, is all he would have wanted.
Actually, that's not all he would have wanted. His first duty was to entertain (well, in his words, "to lure as many people to commercials as possible," but most of the commercials are edited out of these recordings), and he did. So well that people are listening to him years after he signed off for good. Including me, as faithfully as I would if he were still on live, every day.
Then came Lassiter's blog, which disappointed many who thought he would go back to being the thought-provoking, funny entertainer of old. Lassiter, you see, has been suffering the effects of Type II diabetes since shortly after he left WFLA. His blog has been his way of coping with his disease, of coming to terms with the mortality that he understood was catching up with him sooner rather than later. On his 19th wedding anniversary the doctors confirmed that his kidneys were failing. Lassiter was told he had six months to two years left.
He decided, after much thought, that he did not want dialysis. He had too many health issues, he said. It made no sense to save his kidney function only to have one of his other ailments do him in. Some, with good but misguided intentions, tried to talk him out of it, but the decision was final. Bob Lassiter was going to die.
His blog became bleak, sad, dark, and defeated; his concern became his day-to-day condition, what would happen next, and how much time he had left to spend with his beloved Mary. Death is approaching, and he is both conscious of it and powerless to do anything about it. He merely sits by, waiting for it to finally overtake him. It's the most awful thing I can imagine a human being going through.
And yet I still tuned in every day. Without even trying, Lassiter turned the act of dying into a profound, moving expression of the human condition. He reflected upon his past, mused about his present, and questioned what future he had left. He acknowledged that he had become everything he had always poked fun of about old people. He watched the world go by without being an active part of it any longer. He has shown great courage in the face of things, especially since he does not believe in Heaven. (Lassiter believes that death is a void, and he's prepared for that. It takes courage.) Never, even in the most nuanced Bergman films or what-have-you, has oncoming death seemed such an introspective and evocative affair. This is not to trivialize what Bob has gone through…it's merely to say that in coming to terms with it publicly, he has somehow, in some small way, helped me come to terms with my own mortality at the tender age of 27.
I love the man. I've never met him; I never will. But I love him. He's given me more things to think about, more ways to think about them, more laughter and sadness and smiles and diversions than anyone reasonably could — than anyone has a right to expect.
So I can't imagine what it must be like for those in Tampa Bay or Chicago who heard him every single day, live, and loved him then. I envy all of you.
But it's not his fans I'm thinking about today. It's Bob Lassiter himself. Yesterday evening, eleven days before his 61st birthday, Bob announced to the world that he could no longer continue to speak to it. He's got nothing left to say, he explained, and wishes to continue his journey in privacy. His old sign-off, "Take It to the Limit" by The Eagles, seems so apropos; Lassiter has taken his communication with his fans to the absolute limit.
No more will I be able to connect with this man I've come to admire so. It makes me sad, yes, but in no way do I begrudge him. He's given so much of himself already and deserves far more than just the privacy I now hope he receives and, insomuch as he is able, enjoys.
And so, Bob Lassiter and anyone else who might be care, I bid you a personal and heartfelt farewell. I love you as I would a member of my own family, and I thank you for everything you've done for me, consciously or not.
I want to impart wishes to you, but it seems almost cruel to wish you health or a happy life. The love of a wonderful woman you already have. So, as I have many times before, I will only wish you the one thing I know you can really use: peace. I wish you peace, Bob.
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